The career path of Colombian physicist Luisa Fernanda Chaparro Sierra took her from studying the Higgs Boson at CERN, to using similar machine learning techniques to gauge perceptions of crime in the Colombian capital of Bogota.
Chaparro, currently a Research Professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Monterrey, México, says that after finishing her Phd, she had the opportunity to be part of the DataLab (Laboratorio de Datos) of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia where she used the techniques of handling large databases to help understand the problem of the perception of security in Bogota via machine learning methods.
“At CERN, we handled large amounts of data and to differentiate between signal and background; we used supervised machine learning techniques, so I used similar methods and adapted others for the case of perception of security,” she says, adding that DataLab was composed of mathematicians, physicists, and engineers with knowledge in programming and statistics.
“We used Twitter as our data source and reviewed tweets that talked about security in the city for a year,” Chaparro says, “The goal was to design a model that would allow us to quantify something as subjective as perception.”
The researchers were also hoping to find a relationship between it and real crimes by comparing the results with the databases provided by the National Police.
“The model uses the quantification of the perception and behavior of tweets (likes, retweets) in a Hawkes-type model to predict the behavior of the perception of security,” Chaparro says, “Additionally, we studied the relationship between what we obtained from Twitter and reported crimes, finding a high correlation with thefts… and although all citizens do not use Twitter, it gives us a good idea of how people feel about the city.”
From Colombia to CERN
Chaparro says that she always had top marks in physics class during her high school years.
“There my passion for physics started,” she says, adding that she went on to study physics at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, where she became interested in high-energy physics.
“My curiosity grew, and my questions about physics increased,” she says, adding she did one of her internships at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) and one at FNAL (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory), which are some of the most lauded physics facilities in the world.
“At CERN, I had the opportunity to go to the Higgs Boson discovery announcement, one of the century’s most exciting and important discoveries,” she says.
Chaparro says she is convinced that scientists from the Global South must be part of the solutions to global challenges.
“We are innovative, resourceful, and persevering; we have already created solutions for local problems that could be a great starting point for global solutions,” she says, “Nowadays, as a physics professor, I hope to transmit to my students my love for physics.”
Another Colombian researcher turning her physics training to solve problems in other fields is Nancy Ruiz-Uribe, who is working to unlock the mysteries of the physiological and molecular mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease, using her background in physics.
Ruiz-Uribe says her interest in this area started when she decided to merge her background as a physicist working in microscopy and her background as a biologist with a deep interest in medicine.